The most vivid and famous portrait in The Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, is, perhaps, the Wife of Bath. She is one character in whom the realistic and the individualistic elements of portraiture outweight the typical. The character 'jumps out at us' from the pages of The Prologue, as one critic very cogently puts it. She is the most entertaining character in The Prologue. We enjoy her sheer vitality, robustness and earthy essence. Blake found her a pest sent to plague man.The view, however, would not have found agreement with Chaucer, who eyed and presented folly in a tolerantly humorous manner. He accepted folly, vice and immorality as part and parcel of men as well as women. In presentation of the Wife of Bath, we certainly do have satire, but the satire is not violent or bitter and fierce.
A vivid character of flesh and blood
The Wife of Bath is the essence of elemental vitality. She is the woman of earthy physical passion, firm boldness and dominating personality. She comes before us vividly. Her red face, bold expression, huge and voluptuous body attired in a riding coat, the gaps in her teeth, her new shoes, broad wimple adoring her head, and her heavy and fine kerchiefs, all add to a startlingly vivid character of flesh and blood. She would not tolerate any other woman of her parish to give the offering before her at church. She was fully insistent on her rights of precedence, as she was a rich and prominent member of her parish. If any confusion about precedence occurred, she would be 'out of all charitee'. The Wife of Bath did not suffer from any false modesty. She knew her place in society and laid full claims to it.
Her forceful personality and experience of the world
It is not without significance that she is the finest weaver in the country. Indeed, her clothes 'surpasses them of Ypres and Ghent'. She is a prosperous and important member of her community. Naturally, she dresses in accordance with her position in society. Her appearance is neat as well as forceful. She wore the best of clothes, though she was slightly overdressed on Sundays. However, she would want to impress upon the world that she is a successful business woman. She wears her bright scarlet stockings neatly and straight.
Her kerchiefs are ‘full fine of ground', i.e., of fine texture. Her knowledge of travelling and experience of pilgrimages is shown in her choice of suitable dress and mount for the occasion. She wears a protective outer skirt around her broad and generous hips, and is mounted on an ambling horse, which has been trained to walk in a manner most comfortable for the rider. She also wears spurs, and hence we can conclude that she rides astride and not side-saddle.
The Wife of Bath has a forceful personality which suits her generous physical attributes. She has a firm mind which knows its wants clearly. She also knows how to get what she wants. She is jolly, gossipy, and popular woman fond of men's company and well versed in the art of love. She has widely travelled. We are told that she had visited Jerusalem thrice, besides other places of pilgrimage.
Her amorous adventure
Her physical vitality is best represented by her various amorous adventures. She is a much-married woman—she has had five husbands and is ready for the sixth. Her promptitude in getting husbands would not have surprised her fellow pilgrims. In the Middle Ages, a woman of considerable wealth would not have been left single even if she had wanted to remain so. Some man or the other would have cast a covetous eye on her wealth. The Wife of Bath, with her eager willingness to get married, would have found husbands with even greater promptitude. She is, however, the dominant partner in marriage. She would not allow her husband to rule the home. She would have firm control over her home as well as her husband. In her Prologue to her tale, she remarks.
"I wol bistowe the flour of al myn age
In the acts and in fruyt of marriage"
She is entirely as secular figure, and confesses that she has never aspired to live the perfect life. She has no use for transcendental religion.
The Wife of Bath has experienced not merely marital love, but has had a number of affairs in her youth. Her experience of love is subtly summed up by Chaucer when he says at the end of her portrait:
Or remedies of love she knew per chauce,
For She koude of that art the old chauce..
Two striking features : gap teeth and deafness
The most vivid physical attributes of the Wife of Bath are, perhaps, that she was 'some-del def’ and 'gat-toothed'. Gap teeth indicated wide travel, amorousness, and an envious, faithless, irreverent, luxurious, and bold nature. The Wife of Bath has all these features. The reason for her getting some what deaf is given later. Her fifth husband in an attempt to assert his male superiority, hit her across her ears. But beyond the damage to her ears, we may be quite sure that Wife of Bath would not have allowed her husband to gain any superiority.
Her war against male domination
The Wife of Bath is a pure militant as far as women's liberation is concerned. She is not merely an aggressive, uninhibited, vulgar woman dominating the particular men fortunate or unfortunate enough to have been married by her. She is a 'matriarchal figure' who has declared war on all men in general as Trevor Whittock puts it. She embodies the eternal female in revolt against a male-ordered and male-centred civilization. The Middle Ages, one should remember, had rigid and discriminatory sexual ideals. Women were totally inferior to men, and were often beaten and treated most shabbily by their husbands. The Church was equally hard on women, who were regarded as 'tempters' of man. Men's evils and vices were firmly attributed to the temptation signified by women. The Wife of Bath, despite all her vulgarity and boisterous coarseness, embodies the demand for respectability for woman as individuals. She is at once a representative of all that a man dislikes in a women—nagging, spending, gossiping, etc.—and what every woman desires for, which is domination over males.
The Wife of Bath has an awe-inspiring personality, overwhelming in its impact and flamboyancy. It is apt that she should be on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, for a pilgrimage in the Middle Ages was a means of pleasure as well as an object of piety. Chaucer's characterization of the Wife of Bath is in accordance with the method advocated by Cicero who listed eleven points in characterization. Chaucer leaves out only two of these while describing the wife of Bath in The Prologue. We are not given her name, which is Alisoun, as we are to learn later. The other point which is left out is her purpose, which, however, we can say is implied. Her purpose apparently is that of visiting the shrine of St. Thomas with the other pilgrims, and, possibly, to procure a sixth husband.
The Wife of Bath is a clear-cut individual in her self-revelation before she tells her tale or gives her opinion on marriage, and tells her adventures in the marital field without a sign of inhibition. She is, as Nevil Coghill stipulates, "as amoral as Falstaff and Rabelaisian before Rabelais". One can sense the sheer joy that Chaucer must have felt in creating her. She offers a vital and earthy contrast to the mincing primness of the Prioress, who if the only other woman character described in The Prologue. The Wife of Bath is the most complex character among the pilgrims.